Song Saa, Cambodia: Private island comfort at a new level

It's the closest thing I'll get to a culinary romance.

In a crisp jungle dawn but with the promise of heat later in the day, I open the heavy wooden door of my villa to retrieve the rolled note that's been slipped between the outside handle. It's a love letter of sorts.

"Dear Jane," it reads in a swirling script

"'Souse day', good day from all the Song Saa Islanders.

"We trust that you are enjoying our little paradise and the Monk Blessing this morning.

"This evening we would like to invite you for dinner at our main beach area for Kampong Som ocean red snapper fillet and Island coconut creme brulee and tropical fruit compote.

"... From our island bakery you can enjoy Kamping Cham, ripe mango mousse torte, caramel palm sugar infused. With warmest wishes Chendu and Chef Sophat."

An invitation to dinner, cooked by another is a clear signal that I am away from the regular world of routine and rush that I've chosen.

The off button has been pressed, permission has been given to relax, here on this tiny island in Cambodia.


But on the journey to one of the kingdom's newest resorts it's hard to keep expectations in check.

Chatter about the Song Saa Private Island begins in the hot and dusty inland of northern Cambodia and follows me all the way south to our destination in the Koh Rang Archipelago.

In the coastal town of Kep, once dubbed the Riviera of the south, expat eyebrows raise at the resort's mention and locals grin.

The resort – only five years young – and the story of how Australian owners Rory Hunter and Melita Koulmandas Hunter came to build such a place on a jungle-covered island in this fledgling country appears to be better known in the kingdom than it does in their homeland (although they haven't lived in Australia for several years).

The kingdom's first true luxury resort on a private island sounds like the poster child for luxury as well as for care for the community and environment.

It sounds idyllic. A little far-fetched even.

And yet the speedboat ride from Sihanoukville port with leather seats, cool white flannels and champagne is upstaged after only a few steps on to the silkiest of sand of the private island (staff assure me that it's not imported) and a walk to the jungle villa with butterflies darting among the greenery.

The 3.5-hectare island, Koh Ouen, is just one part of Song Saa.

Wooden bridges connect it to its "sweetheart" the four-hectare nature reserve of Koh Bong, to the Vista restaurant and bar area and the over-water villas.

In an arc shape, without railings, the bridge walk to breakfast is both deliberate and giddying as schools of snapper dart back and forth in the turquoise water underneath me.

In the over-water pavilion, as oatmeal with cinnamon lemongrass and kaffir lime is served alongside tropical fruit cooled by wet stones, the putt-putt of fishing boats can be heard in the distance.

Just as intoxicating is the jungle villa No.11 with its heavy doors between bedrooms and conversation-pit lounging areas; half-moon pool overlooking its sweetheart island, outside showers, furniture of recycled fishing boats and a drinks station where fresh limes, lemongrass vodka and tonic water are refreshed each day.

Koulmandas Hunter designed almost every piece of furniture before having it custom made.

"All of the floors in the villas are old recycled housing materials from Thailand and Cambodia. The pool tiles are a local stone from the mainland and all the work stations are made from 100-plus year old Cambodian beds," she says.

If rustic sophistication were a thing, this would be it.

Be prepared too for the most elaborate turn-down service with ladders required to draw the curtains, restocking of the fridge, fluffing of the pillows and the lighting of many, many tealight candles enclosed in lanterns.

Request an in-villa movie night and you will return to a screen the width of the lounge area, movie projector and boxes of popcorn.

A private island this might be, but it is also one piece in the Song Saa story as the project director, Ben Thorne of the Song Saa Foundation, says of the first government recognised marine reserve that rings 200 metres around each island and across a five-hectare stretch of ocean.

"Fishing in the archipelago is the predominant source of food and income and nutrients for the local communities," Thorne says.

"We know that we have transient turtles come through the area and a high abundance of commercial fish species such as snapper and barracuda so the ones that are caught outside the reserve have protection in around the Song Saa islands.

"Once we've protected enough fish in our own marine reserve there will be juveniles going out beyond the waters of the marine reserve. It's about protecting and creating a legacy for the local fishermen as well as the local environment here.

"And we want guests to be able to go out and see this diverse reef, which we're proud to say we have."

To see how the foundation works, I cross the waters, not by luxury speedboat but by longtail to Song Saa's closest village in the community of Prek Svay, loosely translated as Mango River. Stilt houses line the waterways and fishing and cashew farming is a source of income.

Dotted with coconut trees, about 30 per cent of staff are from the community and the foundation runs English lessons and beach clean-ups as part of its conservation club. Many are employed from nearby Sihanoukville and staff are gearing up for World Ocean day and mangrove planting.

I receive my Buddhist blessing from two monks and then from a small child a gift of bugs wings as I leave the village.

Back at the villa the rolled dinner invitation has arrived inviting me to the main pool area at the edge of the ocean under a canopy of twisted and thatched dried vines.

There's just one one other couple dining on a small deck in the middle of the pool, clearly marooned and loving it.

There's another 30 or so guests here, I just don't see them often.

Every night is a new dining place, from the beach club to the end of the jetty, all timed for sunset and maximum serenity.

One guest I do talk to has just arrived for a break from her heavy-duty job in industrial China for a week of spa treatments and yoga classes and I understand the repeat visitation.

This tiny island is the place for a punctuation mark of sorts. The honeymoon, the anniversary, the present to yourself.

For me it's been the shortest, sweetest romance of all time.


*Take a kayak or catamaran with picnic to explore the area.

*Snorkel around the islands to spot grouper and parrotfish.

*Hire the spa sanctuary for exclusive use under the stars.

*Join the daily morning yoga class.

*Explore Koh Bong with a conservation team member to spot kingfisher, sea eagles and Malaysian plover.




Siem Reap and Phnom Penh Airport have multiple daily services to many Asian gateways, including Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Kuala Lumpur.

From Phnom Penh Airport transfers to Sihanoukville Port in BMW 4WD (four hours) for the speedboat ride to the island (45 minutes).

From Siem Reap flights operate daily with Cambodian Angkor Air on the ATR72 aircraft to Sihanoukville International Airport (50 minutes) before transfer to the port. Departing Siem Reap at 4.30pm every Monday and 2.25pm every Tuesday-Sunday, staff transport guests from the airport to the island.


It costs from $890 a night for a one-bedroom Jungle villa with pool inclusive of breakfast, speedboat transfers, high-speed internet and satellite TV, mini bar restocked daily, non-alcoholic beverages, use of of the resort's kayaks, sailing boats, and snorkelling gear, guided tours, 15-minute foot ritual and some daily laundry. There is no charge for children under 12.

Jane Reddy stayed courtesy of Song Saa Private Island.

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